Friday, April 9, 2010


It isn’t easy to pick a single Clark Ashton Smith story, but after some deliberation I finally went for The Empire of the Necromancers, from his Zothique cycle of stories.

The last continent of a dying earth, Zothique is a place where the ancient gods have returned, where dark magic has been reborn and where decadence and debauchery are the order of the day.

First published in Weird Tales in 1932, The Empire of the Necromancers concerns Mmatmuor and Sodosma, two practitioners of the dark arts from the infamous isle of Naat. Having found themselves and their particular ways unwelcome in most of Zothique, Mmatmuor and Sodosma journey to the long vanished kingdom of Cincor where they resurrect the dead in order to make them their slaves, warriors and concubines.

However, the dead – and in particular the resurrected Emperor Illeiro - eventually revolt against them, condemning the necromancers to a fate far worse than death and committing themselves to a second, and much more permanent, demise.

To be honest, a simple synopsis of The Empire of the Necromancers does neither it or Clark Ashton Smith himself any real justice. Where the real magic lies is in Smith’s dense, lush prose and in the downright horrific imagery he conjures with:

“Tribute was borne to them by fleshless porters from outlying realms; and plague-eaten corpses, and tall mummies scented with mortuary balsams… Dead labourers made their palace-gardens to bloom with long-perished flowers; liches and skeletons toiled for them in the mines, or reared superb, fantastic towers to the dying sun. Chamberlains and princes of old time were their cupbearers, and stringed instruments were plucked for their delight by the slim hands of empresses with golden hair that had come forth untarnished from the night of the tomb. Those that were fairest, whom the plague and the worm had not ravaged overmuch, they took for their lemans and made to serve their necrophilic lust.”.

Together with Robert E. Howard and H.P Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith was one of the Big Three writers who helped to put the weird into Weird Tales. Although his work has subsequently been overshadowed by Howard and HPL, he was easily their equal and (in my opinion) often their superior when it came to crafting strange and enchanting fiction. The Zothique stories in particular have an unearthly quality about them – the language is strange and often obscure, the characters generally doom-laden or downright unpleasant (sometimes both) and their influence far reaching. Jack Vance’s Dying Earth stories, for instance, were directly influenced by CAS and the subsequent influence of Vance himself led into the work of such writers as M. John Harrison and Gene Wolfe.

Arguably the literary genius of the fantastic pulps, the work of Clark Ashton Smith is crying out for rediscovery, The Empire of the Necromancers is as good a place as any to start.

And you can find it here, together with much of his other fiction, poetry and art, at The Eldritch Dark, a superb website dedicated to Clark Ashton Smith:


  1. Well said, Jim- I've a few of the old Panther collections of Smith's work and made a point of grabbing the Millennium omnibus 'The Emperor of Dreams' when it came out a few years back. Just bloody extraordinary.

  2. I adore CAS and it's a pity that more folk aren't aware of his work. Still, maybe one day.
    On a separate note: many, many congrats on the BFS nominations - best novel, best novella, best collection. Now that's high cotton.

  3. Excellent choice, James. "Xeethra" is my personal favorite of Smith's short stories, but "Empire of the Necromancers" is easily in the top 5 of the ones I've read. CAS was indeed a master and is truly underappreciated today.